While Ottawa remains paralyzed by the crisis that has engulfed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration, there are parts of the country worried the SNC-Lavalin drama is diverting attention from matters of arguably greater importance.
Like Bill C-69.
Most Canadians wouldn’t have the first clue about what this proposed piece of legislation entails. But plenty of people in Western Canada do, because their livelihoods may depend on it. In fact, you could quite convincingly make the case that the bill has the potential to put far more jobs at risk than the 9,000 said to be threatened in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Also known as the Impact Assessment Act, the legislation introduced by the government slightly more than a year ago changes how major energy projects get reviewed for their environmental, social and economic impacts. In theory it’s supposed to speed up the process – something energy companies have been complaining about forever – and make the criteria for approval clearer.
Its birth was also prompted in part by concerns from environmental and Indigenous groups that the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, as mandated, tilted the field drastically in favour of oil and gas companies. In other words, it was not neutral.
C-69 is designed to make the process more transparent; thereby, in principle, enhancing its credibility with an often-skeptical public.
But far from being the improvement for which industry was hoping, the bill has been met with howls of protest, ones that have primarily emanated from those resource-based provinces in the West that will be most affected by it.
Their concerns are many – and legitimate.
For instance, the legislation lifts the restrictions the former Conservative government put on who gets standing to present at assessment hearings. Many believe that goes too far in the other direction, making the approval process slower, not speedier. There are worries the bill gives too much discretion to federal cabinet ministers to halt reviews at any time, which again could just drag the process out and create enormous uncertainty.
Some provincial premiers, including Alberta’s Rachel Notley, say the bill intrudes on their jurisdiction. She contends that resource projects already facing environmental review in her province should not have to endure a similar federal test. She’d like to see refining and upgrading facilities and in-situ oil sands projects, among others, excluded from the federal assessment process.
Ms. Notley was recently in Ottawa where she presented her objections to the Senate, which is now reviewing its contents. Afterward, she told reporters that the bill – as written – would mean that proposed resource projects would get caught up in duplicate regulatory regimes that would scare away investors. She also wants to see hard limits of 730 days for approvals, eliminating the flexible timelines that exist within C-69.
It’s no secret that the resource industry in Canada is in trouble. The C.D. Howe Institute recently estimated that $100-billion in planned investments in natural-resource projects were shelved in 2017 and 2018. Spending in the oil sands, meantime, is expected to fall for the fifth year in a row. The Trans Mountain expansion has been halted as a result of court rulings.
The resource industry looks at C-69 and thinks: so you officially want to put us out of business, do you? That’s how dire they regard the legislation’s potential impact. At the same time, they’re reading about a scandal in Ottawa in which Mr. Trudeau and his office attempted to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution in order to save jobs primarily based in Quebec.
Any fair-minded person would surely concede how unjust that looks.
Even though the bill underwent 136 amendments in the House of Commons, it remains a scary proposition. It’s now before the Senate energy committee, which is vowing further changes but they won’t be made for several weeks. Meantime, the committee has planned a nine-city tour to elicit citizen feedback on the bill.
There is no question that C-69 is flawed. But those flaws can and should be addressed. There is no question that the environmental-assessment process needs to be improved, needs to be more streamlined and less cumbersome. And that needs to be done urgently.
But if this bill doesn’t receive royal assent this spring, before the house rises for the last time ahead of next fall’s election, it dies on the order paper. And then you’re starting from scratch.
Perhaps what the Liberals need to do is imagine that this bill is helping Quebec. I’m sure it could be improved, expedited and passed into law quite promptly.